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The first chapter of Paradise of Dust

Chapter 1

The Sun Goes Down on Four Devil Hills


It was 1973. The involvement of the US in the Vietnam war was ending. Richard Nixon started his second term as president of the United States of America but wouldn’t finish it. The Godfather won the Academy Award for best picture. The French continued their nuclear tests in Mururoa Atoll, and I was 27 years old. My name is Matthew Walker, and this is my story. 


I was sitting at the bar. It had been a few months since I’d been there. Which was a good thing. Drinking alone? It usually didn’t end well for me. Ella sure wouldn’t like me being here alone­­I knew that much.

   “Rough night?” the bartender asked me. He was wiping a glass clean, seemingly trying to go for perfection. His attention clearly wasn’t on me, but I guess rough night is the thing all bartenders ask when someone’s drinking alone in their establishment.

   “It will be,” I answered. I pointed to my empty glass. “Another one.”

   The bartender held the glass he was polishing to the light and nodded agreeingly without ever looking at me. He walked away to get me my poison.

   I knew I shouldn’t be drinking alone, but some things just seemed to require it. It had everything to do with my old man. I wasn’t sure what to do with him now that I knew where he was and what he’d done. I think I should’ve started at the beginning if you really wanna know what brought me to a dingy-looking place like that. I guess it started with Evelyn.


You see, Evy was my little sister. Ever since she was a baby, she always had this stuffed animal lying beside her. She never had a pacifier. She just put Pig’s arm in her mouth to suck on. I remember my dad looking up from his paper to complain to my mom about Pig. This was all some twenty years ago. I was seven at the time.

   “Kate, she keeps using Pig as a pacifier,” he said.

   “It’s just a binkie,” my beautiful mom replied, looking at little Evy with pure joy and love. “Isn’t it, sweetheart?” she asked her little girl, running her long fingers through Evy’s hair. She must’ve been about 18 months old at that time.

   “Look,” my dad said, sounding a bit annoyed. “The arm’s ripped. Don’t you think you should repair it? What if, God forbid, she chokes on it?”

   Mom would smile at little Evy. “You’re right, Hank. I’ll repair it as soon as she lets it out of her sight for a moment.”

   “She’ll be an adult by then,” my dad said grumpily.

   I remember my mom laughing at that. She had a beautiful laugh. My mom was one hell of a lady. Dad joined in with the laughter. Couldn’t help himself. I remember asking what was going on. My parents just looked at each other, and they hugged before my mom answered me.

   “Nothing, Matty,” Mom said. “We’re just being happy with you and little Evelyn.”

   Dad looked her in the eyes and kissed her. I remember saying, “Gross,” and walking away.

   “Want kissy, want kissy!” Evy crowed, her tiny arms as high up as she could get ’em.

   I just saw my dad picking up Evy as I closed the door to my bedroom.

   A day later, Mom must’ve been getting ready to repair Pig. The sewing machine stood on the table, and Pig lay next to it, but she never got the chance to fix the stuffed animal. She was just 32 years old when she had her heart attack.

   I’ll never forget the first time I walked into our little apartment after that. The family picture, the one she straightened all the time—sagged ’cause of the broken leg at the back every time the door opened—was lying on the floor. A big crack in the glass split Mom and Evelyn from Dad and me. It sure turned out to be a bad omen, if ever there was one.


I took a sip from my bourbon with coke. I don’t care what anybody says—bourbon and coke is the best-tasting thing in the world. It has always been my poison. From the corner of my eye, I saw a woman come to sit next to me.

   “You okay, Matt?” she asked me.

   Shit. I turned to look at her. She was so beautiful. Couldn’t believe she put up with a guy like me. She lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and gave it to me. I took it and took a good long drag as well.

   “I’m sorry, Ella,” I told her as I blew the smoke out.

   “Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I know you have a flair for the dramatic, Mr. Walker,” she continued, obviously teasing me. She smiled at me.

   I loved it when she smiled, even when it was forced or sad.

   “That I do, sweetheart.” I smiled back at her. “It’s always something with me, ain’t it, Miss Jenkins?”

   She took the cigarette from me and took another drag. “May I have a bourbon?” she asked the bartender.

   This time he did look up from polishing his glass. People usually looked up when Ella entered a room. She was beautiful.

   She turned to me. “So, are you okay?” she asked again.

    “It’s my dad,” I told her as I took a sip from my drink. “I got word he’s in the hospital. Won’t be getting out this time, it seems like.”

   “Okay,” she said softly. “Do you care?”

   I looked at her. “You’re so goddamn beautiful. You know that?”

   “I know,” she said with a smile.

   There was nothing forced about that one, though it was kinda sad. We sat there in silence for a while as a memory came washing over me.


I was waiting for Mom to pick me up at school as she always used to do. It was raining, and I stood outside. Miss Kubert came running toward me. She was my teacher. She was a sweet lady, that one.

   “You can wait inside, Matt,” she told me. “You’re gonna get soaking wet waiting in the rain like that.” She didn’t even take the time to get herself an umbrella. She just ran at me in the rain—getting soaked herself.

   “My mom’s late,” I told her.

   “Yes, she is.” Miss Kubert put her arm around me and took me back inside.

   I remember her looking gravely at the clock in the classroom, but she forced a smile as she turned to look at me. Her hair stuck to her face because of the rain. It made her look ten years younger.

   “I’ll give your mother a call and see what’s keeping her.”

   I remember thanking her. I don’t remember much after that, only that I saw the broken picture on the floor when I got home, and my mom would never straighten it again.

   My dad’s side of the story was very different. He told it to everyone who came by to offer their condolences—and there were a lot of people coming by the next few days. As it turned out—Mom was loved by many. Dad told all of ’em—he came home from work soaking wet from the rain. He closed the door behind him—same as he did every day. Nothing out of the ordinary there. As soon as he entered the little hallway of our apartment, he could hear the phone ringing and baby Evelyn crying. As he took off his coat, he yelled for Mom to get the phone. He’d go to Evy. He walked into the living room, drying his glasses on his shirt. He was already whispering soft words to Evy, saying that it was okay and he was home. When he put his glasses back up again, he saw Mom lying on the floor. She was on her back. Her eyes were wide open, and they seemed to stare into nothingness. It was clear that she was dead. My dad fell to the floor. He held her, calling her nameKate, oh Kate. The phone kept ringing, and the baby kept crying. The first thing he remembered after that was the paramedics coming into the apartment, but he couldn’t remember calling them.

   My poor mom, such a good woman. She was so happy with her little family in her little apartment. Poor, but happy.

   I remember it raining while we stood in the graveyard. My dad was holding a crying Evelyn—Pig clutched to her chest. I stood next to him, all by myself. I think there were a few people behind us, standing under umbrellas. Maybe my grandmother and my uncle—I ain’t sure anymore. It was pouring that day, so most of the attendees didn’t leave the church to go stand with us. The pastor was speaking meaningless words as I listened to the sound of the rain.

   After my mom was left to rot in the ground, we went back to our building. Dad didn’t say a word.

   “Can you take Evy up with you?” Dad asked me as we walked onto our street.

   “Where are you going?” I asked him.

   The sun was starting to shine while we all still dripped from the rain.

   “I’ve got business to take care of,” my dad replied. “Now take care of your sister, will you?” Not waiting for an answer, Dad walked away.

   Real piece of work my old man would turn out to be without his wife.

   I walked the stairs to our little apartment. Evy was in my arms. She looked cross-eyed as she tried to see the drop of rain sliding down her nose. She giggled.

   We entered the apartment. The first thing I noticed was the photo in the broken frame. It stood back on the side table. I put Evelyn on the floor. She was sucking wildly on Pig’s arm. I looked at the photo and ran from the room, no longer able to control my tears.

   A lot changed after the funeral.


   “I dunno if I wanna look him up,” I told Ella.

   We were still sitting at the bar.

   “Okay,” she said.

   Smart woman, my Ella. Lets me get it out all on my own—no questions asked.

   “Actually,” I told her, “I do know. I wanna see him. Just one more time, I guess. Just needed some liquid confidence.”

   “Okay,” she said again. “I just don’t like it when you drink alone.”

   I smiled. “I know,” I said to her. “So, it’s a good thing you’re here then.”

   She looked sad, but I doubt she realized it.

   She clinked her glass against mine. We both took another sip.


About a year after my mom died, I walked into the living room. I was so tired from being up late with Evy. She couldn’t sleep the night before, and as usual, it was me that sat with her. I yawned and stretched before I realized Dad was home. He was sleeping on the couch. There was an empty liquor bottle lying next to a full ashtray on the table. I walked past the side table, straightening the picture the way Mom used to do. I walked to the kitchen to make breakfast for Evy and me.

   “Time to get up, Evy. Breakfast is ready,” I yelled as I walked into her room.

   I looked in Evy’s crib. She was lying on her back. Her eyes were open wide and bloodshot. Her face was purple. Clearly, she was dead. It looked exactly how my dad described finding Mom. Pig lay next to her. He was missing an arm. For a moment, I was in perfect silence as it felt like something was closing in on me. I screamed as I backed out of her room.

   Dad gave a loud snore. He turned around on the couch. His chest was full of vomit he must’ve purged earlier that night.

   “Shut the fuck up,” he growled. He started snoring again.

   Soon enough, we were in the hospital. I still remember the doctor. He had a kind face—which was uncommon in Four Devil Hills. Still is. What you’d expect in a city like this? The city of Four Devil Hills was named after four Indian fellows from way back when. They killed some record-breaking amount of people. After that, they passed into legend as the Four Devils, giving their name to the city of Four Devil Hills. Maybe a place like this was meant to be ugly and hard. Maybe all places are.

   “Just a freak accident,” the doctor told my dad. He held up Pig’s arm. “It was lodged in her throat. Nothing you could’ve done.”  

   Nothing he could’ve done? Sure, Doc. Parent of the year, my dad was. Not his fault at all. Son of a bitch never took another look at Evy after Mom died. Or at me, for that matter.


“You know you don’t owe him anything, right?” Ella asked me. She was talking about my dad lying in the hospital.

   I was looking at the bartender. He kept polishing glasses, but every now and then, he stole a glance at Ella. The world I grew up in? It could get a man killed if he looked at your woman for too long. The bartender was lucky I was different from most gangsters I knew. So, I ignored his glances.

   “I know,” I told Ella. “Just feels like something I have to do.”

   “I doubt you’ll get closure,” she said softly.

   Smart woman, my Ella.

   I took another sip. “One can hope.”

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